in Western Europe of the late tenth-13th century, a liberation movement of the townspeople against the seignorial regime; the first stage in the class struggle in the medieval town.
The towns that were established during the Middle Ages on the land of the feudal lords found themselves under the lords’ power. Often, a town was owned by several seigniors at the same time. (For example, Amiens was held by four feudal lords, Marseilles and Beauvais by three, and Soissons and Haarlem by two.) The urban population was subjected to harsh exploitation, including all kinds of requisitions, duties on commercial transactions, and even the corvée, as well as to the judicial and administrative tyranny of the seigniors. At the same time, the actual economic foundations of the seignorial regime were very shaky. In contrast to the feudally dependent peasant, the artisan owned the means of production and the finished product and was independent (or almost independent) of the seignior in the production process. The virtually complete economic independence of urban commodity production and circulation from the landlord-seignior sharply contradicted the regime of seignorial exploitation, which hindered the economic development of the towns.
In Western Europe the towns’ struggle for liberation from the power of the seigniors developed on a broad scale from the late tenth (in Italy and the Netherlands) and 11th centuries. Very often the communal movement expressed itself in open armed uprisings of townspeople under the slogan of the commune— urban independence. Among the many medieval uprisings were those in Milan (980), Cambrai (957, 1024, 1064, 1076, 1107, and 1127), Beauvais (1099), Laon (1112 and 1191), Worms (1071), and Cologne (1074). In many cases (particularly in northern France and northern Italy) the nucleus of the uprising was a secret alliance of townspeople known as the commune. Open struggle was combined in almost every instance with redemption from the seigniors of individual obligations or rights or of the independence of the town as a whole. In certain towns (for example, in southern France) redemption was the prevailing means of liberation, although even in this region there were also more or less sharp, open clashes.
During the struggle of the towns against the seigniors a new form of urban organization—the commune—was born. It was both an alliance directed against the seignior and an urban administrative organization. The forms and degree of urban communal freedom varied, depending on the level of economic development, the correlation between the forces of the townspeople and those of the seigniors, and general political conditions in the country. Many cities (for example, Amiens, Beauvais, Soissons, Laon, Ghent, Bruges, Lille, Arras, Toulouse, and Montpellier) became self-governing town-communes. (The town council and officials were elected from the townspeople, and the town had its own court, militia, and finances, as well as the right to levy taxes on its citizens.) The town-communes were obliged to pay rent annually to the feudal seignior, who confirmed the rights of the city in a charter, and they had to send troops to aid the seignior in time of war. At the same time, certain town-communes also played the role of collective seignior with respect to the peasants living on land adjoining the city.
Often, even large cities such as Paris, Orléans, and Lyon failed to obtain the rights of complete self-government: their elected agencies had to act jointly with an official appointed by the king or with the representative of a seignior. In numerous cases (for example, Lorris) the townspeople obtained certain judicial rights and the right to dispose of movable and immovable property, but not the right of self-government. Only the most developed cities of northern and central Italy (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Siena, Lucca, Milan, Bologna, and Perugia) managed to become city-states (republics) that were completely independent of their former seigniors. Thus, certain towns (especially the small ones) did not succeed in freeing themselves from the power of the seigniors. However, in the struggle against the seigniors, almost all towns achieved personal freedom for their citizens. Even a serf who had fled from his master and had lived in the town for a given length of time (usually, a year and a day) won his personal freedom—“city air makes free,” as the medieval German saying went.
The chief role in the communal movement was played by the popular masses, but the wealthiest and most influential townspeople (the patriciate) seized power in the commune. The second stage of the class struggle in the towns was the struggle between the craft guilds and the patriciate.
On the whole, the communal movement had tremendous progressive significance. Its achievements were among the basic preconditions for the transformation of the towns into major centers of economic, intellectual, and cultural progress. In the most advanced Italian cities, whose development Marx considered an exceptional phenomenon, complete political independence and the end of feudal exploitation promoted an unusually intensive accumulation of wealth and the transformation of these cities during the 14th and 15th centuries into hotbeds of early capitalist development. Because it undermined the power of the greatest feudal seigniors, the communal movement was an extremely important factor in the political unification of those countries in which the towns were allied with the royal power. The communal movement promoted the formation of estates of townspeople. Under favorable conditions, this led to the emergence of the estate monarchy—a more progressive form of the feudal state.
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S. M. STAM